Jewish rituals of purity and impurity are still practiced today — perhaps most notably in the somewhat euphemistically named practice of taharat mishpacha (family purity), which boils down to the rule that men may not have sex with menstruating women.
This is but a shadow of the massive labyrinthine system of Jewish purity that was practiced in antiquity — a system far more complex and far more pervasive in everyday life. A full order of the Talmud is devoted to the subject. If you visit the archaeological remains of the ancient Jewish community in Qumran (whose library, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, was discovered in the mid-20th century hidden in some cliffside caves), you’ll likely be struck by just how many mikvehs (ritual baths used for purification) are found amongst the other communal buildings.
For ancient Jews, impurity came about through contact with corpses, with certain creatures, with all manner of bodily emissions, childbirth, leprosy and more. Impurity was also contagious — it could be caught from other people, objects, indoor spaces, and grave sites. Certain classes of impure people, particularly lepers whose impurity was difficult to reverse, were actually removed from the community altogether. Others who could more readily remedy their impurity did so before re-engaging in certain aspects of communal life.
Since purity was in large measure about ensuring that offerings made to God in the Temple were fit, it makes sense that much of the system fell out of use after the destruction of the Temple. It can be difficult for us moderns to wrap our heads around a whole system that we don’t practice. Bible scholars and anthropologists alike have made detailed studies of various Jewish purity systems and yielded many valuable insights, but no one has been able to offer a grand theory that explains every detail.
A teaching on today’s page illustrates just how complex and counterintuitive the purity system can be:
A leper, who went beyond his boundary (and entered the Israelite camp) is punished with forty lashes. Similarly, zavin and zavot (who are prohibited from entering the Levite camp) who went beyond their boundaries, are punished with forty lashes. And one who is ritually impure due to contact with a corpse is permitted to enter even the Levite camp.
A leper, one suffering from a skin condition that may have been psoriasis, was prohibited from entering the camp or Israelite community. Zavin and zavot, men and women who were impure by dint of emission (seminal in the former case and menstrual in the latter) were prohibited from entering the camp of the Levites, who served with the priests in the Temple and had to maintain a state of purity. But here’s a surprising kicker: impurity that happens from contact with a corpse does not actually prohibit one from entering any encampments, including that of the Levites who serve in the Temple. In fact, even a corpse itself can enter the camp:
And not only did they say that one who is ritually impure due to a corpse may enter this area, but even a corpse itself may be brought into the Levite camp, as it is stated: And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him (Exodus 13:19), the words “with him” implying that the bones were taken within his boundary.
Even a corpse, which conveys impurity not only through touch but even through certain kinds of proximity, could be brought into the Levite encampment. The reason given here is not logical or practical, but midrashic. When Israel escaped slavery in Egypt, they took the bones of their forefather, Joseph, who had died in Egypt with them. The rabbis read the text very closely here: Moses (a Levite) took the bones of Joseph with him. This means that the bones travelled in Moses’ Levite encampment.
The primary teaching about impurity and Passover on today’s page is equally counterintuitive. If an individual is impure with corpse impurity, that individual may not offer the paschal lamb — they can participate in a make-up Passover, called “Passover Sheni,” a month later. But if the majority of the community is impure from contact with a corpse, well, they just go ahead and offer their paschal lambs in a state of impurity.
In future tractates, we’ll spend much more time on the details of the purity/impurity system. At that time, it will be helpful to try to set aside whatever assumptions we may have and allow the rabbis to explain the system according to its own logic and rules — however foreign they may seem.